All My Children

How my miscarriages fit into my family

hen people ask me how many children I have, the answer seems obvious: three.

But there are four little ghosts tugging at my jeans when I say this, traces of people who started to grow inside me and then gave up.

My first baby girl arrived healthy and full term, but in the next two years, I had two miscarriages. At the time I wondered if I had failed my babies. Did I have some rare baby-rejecting disease? Or perhaps I hadn’t been welcoming enough? When I’d worried that a new child might somehow wreck our lovely one-child family dynamic, did the wee embryo inside me slink off into the afterlife, knowing its mother didn’t love it unconditionally?

I became wrapped up in this kind of thinking. For example, with my first miscarriage, I had started to bleed heavily while I was on the subway on my way to work. I got off the train instantly and found a bathroom, where the sheer volume of blood confirmed my worst fears – my tiny new baby was slipping out of me. I called my doctor from the noisy station, and she gloomily told me there was nothing she could do to stop what nature had started.

My solution? Never take the subway again and instantly stop working. I became a stay-at-home mother, not because of some long-planned transition, but because I was afraid of disaster – that the subway and working cause miscarriages. I planted a garden in our backyard with obsessive fervor. Something must take root, I decided. If not my baby, then a whole lot of sunflowers! Do you hear me, God?

With the next pregnancy, I was intensely careful. I stayed far away from the subway. I wouldn’t lift my child. I remained horizontal every chance I got. And everyone was so hopeful for me. When I threw up all the time, everyone told me that was a good sign. When I saw the baby’s heart beating that was a really good sign. When my uterus grew large and my belly started to pop, all signs pointed to “baby on board.”

I took my husband with me to the 10-week ultrasound, so he could share my joy and see the heartbeat too. The physician’s assistant paused a long time while we waited for her to turn the screen around for us to see our new baby’s heartbeat. But there wasn’t one. The baby had stopped growing a few weeks earlier.

Some people told me (in slightly nicer words) that it was a doomed embryo we lost. But any mother in the world – whether or not she has living children – will tell you that whenever she is trying to grow a life in her body, it is a baby. For me, each of these babies was a grand hope, a gorgeous being, and the product of love – not a mixed-up set of chromosomes that wasn’t intended to grow. Each was a heart that started to beat, and then stopped: They were my children.

I lay there on the doctor’s table gaping like a goldfish as I was told I would be scheduled for a D&C to remove the dead tissue from my uterus. I kept repeating, “Are you sure? Are you sure? Are you sure?” Then my husband took me home where I clung to the side of our bed like it was a sinking ship and howled in agony.

I saw a grief counselor every week for more than a year after that, and with her my grief became somewhat acceptable. I learned to live with the notion that a baby had started, and then died, inside of me. I named her Eve, and I imagined all the milestones she would have hit over the next year.

The counselor guided me through my next pregnancy, which miraculously went past term and resulted in an actual baby, my second child. I stared at her in bald wonder, thinking, “Did this really happen? Is it safe to hope you’re really alive?”

When our third healthy baby girl was born 15 months later, I began to believe that my luck had really turned around. Despite our horrible journey through miscarriage, I had three terrific little girls. But we couldn’t resist the urge to try for one more baby.

When I got pregnant again, at 40, I maintained as much skepticism as I could. I didn’t buy one stitch of maternity clothing, let alone baby clothes. I also insisted on weekly ultrasounds. I didn’t want to be tricked into gestating a dead embryo for one minute longer than necessary. The movie quote that ran through my head constantly was from Beverly Hills Cop. Every time I saw a flickering heartbeat on the ultrasound monitor, I thought, “That’s nice, but I’m not gonna fall for a banana in the tailpipe.”

By the time I plopped myself up on the exam table for the final ultrasound of my first trimester, I was starting to get excited. But a minute later, the doctor’s face fell. There was no heartbeat. Another little baby had died at precisely the same moment her sister had years before.

So I cried, and my doctor cried, and we all met the next morning at the hospital for a D&C to bring an end to another chapter. But a month later I needed another D&C because my enthusiastic uterus continued to build up tissue to care for a baby that had long since been removed.

This past spring, I was fortunate to find myself pregnant again – an exciting surprise. But two weeks later, just before I was scheduled to start my regimen of hawkish ultrasounds, I started bleeding like crazy and another flickering hope sputtered out.

I’m past the unrealistic way of thinking now, and I faced these late miscarriages with a sad pragmatism that saved me the unnecessary guilt. I imagine they were all girls, these four babies who stopped growing inside me. They feel like my children. Intellectually I know that they were arrangements of chromosomes ill suited for life, but the moment I saw each positive pregnancy test my heart bloomed larger and wider. And when those babies died, I was crushed.

How does a woman describe the feeling of losing a child in utero? It is grief, but not the same kind of grief as losing a child who has walked on this earth. From that grief, I felt certain I would die. It is the most gut-wrenching sorrow I have ever known, and I have no plans to forget those four little ones who might have been.

I met a man recently who told me proudly that he has seven children. And as I shook his hand and congratulated him, I said silently, “So do I.”